Cornwall, Devon and Somerset

What’s in a word?

Language is very powerful. The way we use words can be emotive and provocative. When we use a word in conversation, we (unconsciously?) choose to use it because of its connotation, because of the imagery or meaning it can portray in the assumption close brackets that the person with whom we’re talking holds the same imagery and meaning. This is how communication works. Or not. This also means, of course, that we can deliberately choose words in order to create the impact we want to have.

We all know that communication exercise in which we are directed to not think of an elephant. And we all immediately start thinking of elephants. Now you’re thinking of elephants (as undoubtably you are), are you thinking of the same thing as me? We use our memory to build the thought of ‘elephant’ and, what you have in your head – along with all its associated memories, emotion and imagery, is likely not what I have…..five or six juvenile Asian elephants splashing around in a small lake in Thailand that I’m helping wash down after their ‘shift’ in a small logging camp. Are you seeing a zoo, or a circus, maybe a wildlife documentary…… You get the point – we’re most likely sharing the same construct but not quite the same picture. For the most part, sharing the construct is usually enough…it facilitates the ongoing conversation. All well and good. However – it also leaves the emotion, imagery, experiences in our minds, colouring our thoughts, having subtle influence on – quite literally – our frame of mind, and – from there – our behaviour.


Try not to think of…. a manager

So – here’s another one for you: “manager”. What does that bring up…? What might be in that shared construct? We all have experience of “managers” that we’ll now be drawing on, to recreate that construct, and an ‘understanding’ of the broader elements that also contribute to that construct. If this were a discussion, as the conversation unfolded and broader contexts introduced, we would be, internally, revising that construct until we came to a shared mental model of “manager” that made sense for us, in the moment.

Now what is interesting is what might be in that pool of knowledge, learning and past experiences we draw on to create that operational construct. If you look up the definition of ‘manager’ the many options share one or two common elements: control, direct, in charge. Not surprising, as the role of manager emerged during the Industrial Revolution, enhanced and entrenched by Taylorism: standardisation, clear division of tasks and responsibilities, boundaries and hierarchy of authority, and strict surveillance. And, of course, pay linked to performance.

A manager (n.) is one who manages (vb.). Consider the synonyms of manage: ‘be in charge of’, ‘govern’, ‘command’, ‘direct’, ‘control’, ‘oversee’, ‘supervise’…..and reflect on the emotional state these create within you. Other synonyms are ‘cope’, ‘make do’, ‘get by’…a manager is one who ‘copes’ – how exciting is that? In many organisations, the first line (or level – another way we promulgate hierarchy) of managers are still referred to as “supervisors”, keeping that command-and-control element of the construct alive and well.


Think of the word ‘leader’…

Now – let’s take a look at another word: “leader”. What’s in that construct? Curiously, even just bringing it in..has your mood lightened ever so slightly? Doing the same as above we get common threads like conductor, guide, confidence, passion. To lead (vb.) shares ‘to go before’, ‘escort’, ‘show the way’. Synonyms include ‘guide’, ‘steer’, ‘shepherd’. The knowledge, learning and past experiences we draw on – those you are reflecting on right now, because I have presented you with the word – are different to those we use for manager. For most of you, your emotional state will be lighter, more energised, more excited holding the construct ‘leader’ than holding the construct ‘manager’.

It isn’t completely black and white, of course, but in general terms the emotions created by what we hold in the construct of leadership are much more positive, engaging and inspiring than those we hold in the construct of management.

In our current industrial and commercial – the Fourth Industrial Revolution, postpandemic – landscape we are daily told of burnout, of disengaged employees, quiet quitting, worsening mental health…particularly of managers. And we shouldn’t be surprised. As we’ve moved into the 21st Century, the constructs that were created in the 19th Century are no longer appropriate. Yet they persist…deeply rooted in our collective psyche, even though for some time now we have recognised the shift in the management role.

When successful, management is a role ‘in service of’ others, not directing and controlling others. As we have progressively moved from the siloed, functional, mechanical model of organisations to the more fluid ‘ecosystem’ model successful management is seen to be much more relational, human to human. Now we are recognising the value of supportive, inclusive relationship skills to management: trust, authenticity, vulnerability, transparency, self-awareness, self-management …..remember – all those “soft skills” of yore…?


Managers, here’s your challenge

So, here’s your challenge: what would it be like if you scrapped all your managers? Anyone with ‘manager’ in their title – including you – change it to ‘leader. Shift their – and your – mind-set…stand in a different construct. Of course, there are still instances of where ‘managing’ is appropriate – for non-human resources – but when it involves people make them all leaders. Manage processes. Lead people. How different would they – and you – feel about themselves in relation to others? How much more engaged, and engaging, could they/would they be?

If you’d like some support in making this happen, we can help ( Leadership is a mind-set as much as it is a skill set:


“We’re all “bundles of potentiality” that only manifest in relationship”

– Margaret Wheatley 2006


P.S. Try the same process with Task vs Mission. What does that mind-set shift do to your engagement, excitement, and commitment?

Team Development Cornwall Devon Somerset

Thoughts and reflections by Martyn Lowesmith, Team Development Specialist at Sky Space.

Martyn is a leadership, team, relationship and organisational coach with a global career spanning 30 years. He is based in Somerset in the UK and works with organisations, teams, partnerships and individuals.

He brings his experience and knowledge to all his work and continues to develop his own thinking around how to to support clients towards their potential and bring them into right relationship with humanity.

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